Penned by the American transcendentalist author and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, ‘Civil Disobedience‘ is an essay that explores themes of individualism, resistance to unjust laws, and the role of government in society. The essay was published in 1849 as a response to his night spent in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax in protest against the Mexican-American War and the institution of slavery.
Henry David Thoreau was a prominent figure of the transcendentalist movement, which emerged in the early 19th century as a reaction against societal conformity and materialism.
Civil Disobedience | Summary
Thoreau’s essay delves into his philosophy on government, individual rights, and the concept of civil disobedience. He begins by stating that he supports the motto ‘That government is best which governs least,‘ and he believes that ideally, government should not govern at all. Thoreau sees government as an expedient tool that is often inefficient and can even be abusive. He argues that a standing government can be as problematic as a standing army, both are prone to misuse by a few individuals. Thoreau criticizes the American government for its shortcomings, claiming it lacks vitality and integrity. He views the American government as a tradition attempting to preserve itself but losing its true essence over time. He argues that it does not actively promote positive change but rather obstructs the inherent progress and character of the American people.
The essay then delves into the idea of conscience and moral judgment. Thoreau contends that individuals should prioritize their personal principles over blind obedience to the government. He questions the legitimacy of a government that promotes policies that contradict one’s conscience. Thoreau proposes that people should be ‘men first, and subjects afterward,’ implying that individuals should prioritize their own moral judgment and principles over governmental authority. Thoreau goes on to explore the concept of voting and majority rule. He criticizes the idea that a majority should always decide what is right or wrong. He questions whether there can be a government where conscience, rather than majority rule, dictates decisions. Thoreau believes that citizens should not surrender their own moral judgment to legislators and emphasizes the importance of individual conscience. He argues that individuals have a duty to resist unjust laws and government actions. He discusses the duty of citizens to rebel and revolutionize when their government engages in tyranny or unjust behavior. Thoreau asserts that individuals should actively oppose immoral laws and policies, even if it means breaking the law.
He discusses his experience of being briefly imprisoned for his refusal to pay taxes as an act of protest against government actions he considers unjust. He addresses his dissatisfaction with the American government and its policies, particularly slavery and war, which he views as immoral. Thoreau argues that those who claim to be abolitionists should not wait to constitute a majority before acting against these injustices, but rather withdraw their support immediately. He presents the idea that a person who stands for what is right, even if in the minority, holds a significant moral influence. Thoreau reflects on his annual interaction with the government through a tax collector, seeing it as a direct confrontation with the state’s authority. He explores the moral dilemma faced by individuals who work for the government, suggesting that they must question their actions and their impact on fellow citizens.
Thoreau believes that if a single person, or a small group of honest individuals, were to resist and be imprisoned for their principles, it could lead to the abolition of slavery. He criticizes the tendency for people to talk about reform without taking substantial action. He also imagines a scenario where a state ambassador advocating for human rights in the Council Chamber is imprisoned by his own state for his beliefs, which he thinks could spark change. He contends that under an unjust government, the right place for a just person is in prison, rather than supporting a corrupt system. He discusses how imprisonment can lead to personal growth and a deeper understanding of one’s convictions. He encourages individuals to withhold support from an unjust government, even if it means facing consequences and suggests that the government’s ability to function depends on the compliance of its citizens.
He emphasizes the importance of acting on one’s conscience, regardless of potential consequences. Thoreau recounts his time in prison, describing interactions with fellow inmates and observations about life in confinement. He reflects on the simplicity of life inside the prison and how it contrasts with the complex societal structures outside. Thoreau explores the limitations of societal norms, traditions, and institutions, advocating for individual autonomy and resistance against unjust authority. He argues that the government often relies on physical force rather than reason, and he expresses his determination to live according to his principles and not be coerced into submission. He concludes by asserting that he does not oppose taxes for specific reasons, but rather opposes his allegiance to a government that acts against his values.
He contemplates the actions of well-meaning but ignorant individuals who inadvertently cause pain. He questions the need to conform to demands imposed by those who lack the capacity to retract or alter their demands. Thoreau analyzes the concept of resistance against overwhelming force and ponders the potential for appeal to a higher authority or to the masses themselves. He discusses the possibility of conforming to laws and governments but expresses a reluctance to do so without just cause. Thoreau explores the idea that his relationship with the state might change as the government takes on more responsibilities. He reflects on the varying perspectives of the Constitution and the government, emphasizing that he lives mostly outside the scope of government control. Thoreau criticizes the limitations of statesmen and legislators who fail to truly understand the institutions they serve. He acknowledges their useful contributions within a limited framework but argues that they lack a deeper perspective. He highlights the difference between consistency and truth, and how politicians often focus on policy without addressing moral concerns. Thoreau advocates for recognizing the rights of the individual and imagines an ideal state that respects everyone’s autonomy.
Civil Disobedience | Background
Henry David Thoreau’s essay was written in the context of the Mexican-American War and the broader socio-political issues of his time. Thoreau’s views on civil disobedience were deeply influenced by his opposition to the war and his strong stance against what he saw as unjust government actions. The essay was published in 1849, a year after the war had ended and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had been signed. Thoreau’s criticism of the government’s involvement in the Mexican-American War is reflected in his essay’s emphasis on the individual’s moral responsibility to resist unjust laws and actions. He believed that individuals should not blindly follow government dictates but should instead use their conscience and reason to determine whether a law or action is morally right. Thoreau’s refusal to pay a poll tax and his subsequent imprisonment were acts of civil disobedience aimed at protesting the war and the expansionist policies of the government. The war and its controversies also shaped Thoreau’s ideas about the relationship between the individual and the state.
Thoreau was also a prominent figure in the transcendentalist movement, which emerged in the early to mid-19th century. Transcendentalism celebrated the uniqueness and individuality of each person. Transcendentalists believed that individuals should rely on their own intuition and beliefs rather than conforming to societal norms and conventions. This emphasis on individualism encouraged people to discover and express their true selves. The concept of self-reliance was central to Transcendentalist thought. Transcendentalists encouraged people to rely on their own inner resources and beliefs, rather than depending on external authorities or institutions. Transcendentalists were critical of organized religion and established social norms, and institutions that they saw as stifling individual creativity and freedom. They believed in questioning authority and resisting conformity in favor of pursuing one’s own path. Many Transcendentalists were involved in social reform movements, such as abolitionism and women’s rights, viewing these causes as extensions of their principles.
During Thoreau’s time, the United States was grappling with the issue of slavery. The abolitionist movement was a significant social and political movement that aimed to end the institution of slavery in the United States. It gained momentum in the 19th century and played a crucial role in shaping the nation’s history. The abolitionist movement can be traced back to the late 18th century when various individuals and groups began to advocate for the abolition of slavery. The abolitionist movement faced strong opposition from pro-slavery advocates in both the North and the South. As anti-slavery sentiment grew, so did violent reactions from those who depended on the institution of slavery for economic and social reasons. It reflected a time of shifting social, political, and moral ideals. The essay touches on this theme, highlighting Thoreau’s refusal to support a government that condones slavery. His stance aligns with the growing abolitionist movement, which sought to end slavery and promote civil rights for all individuals.
Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience as a form of protest and resistance was groundbreaking for its time. His essay laid the foundation for future nonviolent movements, such as the civil rights movement led by figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The mid-19th century was a period of experimentation with democratic ideals. Thoreau’s critique of the government’s actions and his call for more just and accountable governance reflect broader debates about the proper role of government in a democracy. This era saw the rise of different models of democracy, constitutional frameworks, and political ideologies that aimed to redefine the relationship between government and citizens. In summary, Thoreau’s essay ‘Civil Disobedience’ emerged in a period marked by debates over slavery, expansionism, individualism, and the nature of democracy. His socio-historical context greatly influenced his views on individual conscience, government authority, and the importance of resisting unjust laws.
Civil Disobedience | Literary Devices
Allusion is a literary device that involves making a brief reference to a person, place, event, or work of literature or art. Henry David Thoreau uses allusions to draw upon familiar cultural and historical elements, enriching his arguments and helping readers understand his points on a deeper level. Thoreau alludes to Orpheus, a figure from Greek mythology known for his ability to enchant even inanimate objects with his music. By alluding to Orpheus’s inability to change the nature of rocks and trees, Thoreau illustrates the limits of an individual’s power to change certain circumstances. Thoreau also makes reference to the New Testament, stating,
‘For eighteen hundred years, though perchance I have no right to say it, the New Testament has been written; yet where is the legislator who has wisdom and practical talent enough to avail himself of the light which it sheds on the science of legislation?‘
This allusion highlights the contrast between the ethical and moral teachings of the New Testament and the shortcomings of legislators who fail to implement these teachings effectively in their governance.
Henry David Thoreau employs rhetorical questions to make his arguments more compelling and to encourage readers to consider the implications of his ideas.
To quote a few instances,
‘Why give your neighbors this pain to treat you as they are not inclined to?‘
‘Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man?‘
‘Can there not be a government in which the majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong, but conscience?‘
Thoreau uses these rhetorical questions to challenge prevailing norms, prompt readers to reflect on the issues he presents, and invite them to consider alternative perspectives.
Emotive language is also used to evoke strong emotions and sentiments in the reader, helping to emphasize Thoreau’s views and create a more impactful reading experience.
‘I think, again, This is no reason why I should do as they do, or permit others to suffer much greater pain of a different kind.’
‘Why expose yourself to this overwhelming brute force?’
‘You do not put your head into the fire.’
These examples show how emotive language is strategically used throughout the essay to appeal to the reader’s emotions and values, encouraging them to empathize with Thoreau’s perspective and consider the importance of individual conscience and moral responsibility.
In ‘Civil Disobedience,’ Thoreau argues for nonviolent resistance to unjust laws and government actions that contradict an individual’s moral beliefs. He advocates for following one’s conscience and prioritizing personal integrity over compliance with laws that perpetuate injustice. The essay also delves into the limitations of government and the concept of democratic experimentation. Thoreau’s essay remains relevant today as a philosophical exploration of the balance between citizen responsibility, individual freedom, and the moral obligation to resist oppressive laws.